Before long, the recreational boating season will draw to a close and owners will batten down their craft for the winter. Many will choose the low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic better known as shrink-wrap. It works well to protect boats from the elements, but comes at a high price – both financial and environmental. The boat owner pays the former fee; we all pay the latter.

“Disposal is problematic to say the least,” acknowledges Susan Swanton, executive director of the Maine Marine Trades Association. Every spring, boat yards and boat owners pull tons of this plastic off watercraft, and most of it goes to landfills or incinerators.

No one has tabulated how much boat shrink-wrap gets discarded each year. But most boats require at least 15 pounds of wrap, and Maine has more than 100,000 registered so it’s a large volume of waste.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is exploring ways to address this challenge, but DEP Environmental Specialist Elena Bertocci says there are no formal rules regarding boat wrap and no available funding. The state legislature recently created a Maine Solid Waste Diversion Grant Program to help municipalities redirect more materials into recycling, but did not allocate funds to it in the current biennial budget.

LDPE (No. 4) plastic can be recycled, typically into items such as composite lumber or plastic bags. Recycling shrink-wrap from boats, though, is complicated and labor-intensive; in Swanton’s words, “it’s a real challenge.” Ben Holloway, of Coastal Boatworks in Newcastle, concurs – having worked to separate the wrap for recycling since 1996 when his yard first began using it.

The plastic wrap can never touch the ground when coming off the boat, he explains, and must have all straps, vents and doors removed. It’s hard to bundle by hand so an on-site baler may be needed. The LDPE market can get glutted in spring, Holloway says, so to get any return on the plastic, his yard tries to store enough for a trailer load (40,000 pounds), but that can take several years.

Coastal Boatworks and Maine Mobile Shrinkwrap collect the most boat shrink-wrap for recycling, each in the neighborhood of 7 tons per year, according to Bertocci. Typically, they sell it to Casella Waste Systems in Scarborough.

Holloway gets little monetary return from recycling the shrink-wrap and says he keeps at it year after year because “it’s the right thing to do.” Other yard owners would participate as well, he adds, but the state “is not helping out with grants, tax breaks [or] incentives.”

The DEP is starting a pilot project at the Belgrade Transfer Station encouraging boatyards to bring clean shrink-wrap there for recycling. The site will also gather LDPE from a local lumber company and other businesses that receive pallets covered in plastic. It will be a test case, Bertocci says, to see whether this can “be done in an economically feasible manner without grants.”

In the waste management hierarchy, source reduction and reuse comes before recycling. Many boatowners avoid shrink-wrap by using polyethylene or canvas tarps, which typically last for several seasons (and often can be reused later for other purposes). Some boatyards are returning to tarps as well, Swanton says, which work well as long as people tie them securely.

A small percentage of Maine’s cast-aside shrink-wrap finds its way to a second life half a world away. Alison McKellar, an enterprising community volunteer in Camden, collects clean and dry shrink wrap and sends it – along with medical supplies and other donations – to NuDay Syria, a New Hampshire group that ships materials to Syria where the shrink wrap is used for impromptu shelters and supplemental cover.

McKellar faces the same challenges as boat yards interested in recycling – training people to keep the wrap clean and dry and finding adequate storage space. Wet shrink wrap can ruin other humanitarian supplies in shipping so she often has to go to extra lengths to dry out the used wrap. “People love the idea,” she says, “but it’s difficult.”

McKellar would like to see a ban on disposing of boat shrink wrap in the waste stream, a move that could create more financial incentives for reuse and recycling. However, a disposal ban might also prompt a spike in roadside dumping.

Another approach would be to legislate an upfront “product stewardship” deposit that helps to address the full cost of this plastic over its life cycle. Maine requires a similar deposit for paint (to cover the recycling cost of unused paint) and recently came close to adopting a deposit for mattresses.

Product stewardship legislation helps taxpayers by shifting recycling costs from municipalities to the consumers who directly benefit from the product. A modest added deposit fee might not be too onerous for boat owners, given that they already pay upwards of $10 per linear foot for shrink wrapping.

If Maine legislators want to encourage greater reuse and recycling of boat shrink wrap, they could direct the Maine DEP to set up a system and determine a fair means of funding it. There’s a dire need for innovation and support – so that all boatyards and boat owners can do the right thing.

Marina Schauffler provides research, writing and editing services to nonprofit and social enterprise organizations through Natural Choices (www.naturalchoices.com).